Detective, Page To Screen

The New Centurions (1972)

Dixon Of Dock Green this film sure isn’t. This film gives us a frank look at the reality of policing the streets, and it throws us headfirst into the dirt, pain, and the horror of the streets of 1970’s Los Angeles. This is a warts and all portrayal of the reality of police work, it’s not a pretty job and it is always dangerous.

At the time this film was made and set, the days when a copper could simply defuse a situation just by walking around the corner were sadly long gone. In America in particular, an increase in prostitution, gun crime and violence meant that policing the beat was more dangerous than it had ever been before.The film is directed by Richard Fleischer, has a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, and music by Quincy Jones. The film is based upon Joseph Wambaugh’s 1971 novel of the same name. Wambaugh was a serving LAPD cop when he wrote the book. His experience of the job meant that the novel was a very realistic portrayal of the Police department.

The realism and authenticity of the novel is carried over into the film. The films technical advisor was Richard E. Kalk, he was also a serving officer and he was Wambaugh’s police partner.

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Roy and Kilvinski out on patrol. Screenshot by me.

This is one of the best films about patrolling the beat ever made anywhere in the world in my opinion. George C. Scott is utterly ferocious here as Kilvinski, the tough, older, wiser and more experienced police officer mentoring a young rookie called Roy.

Kilvinski has seen it all during his years on the force. Nothing surprises him anymore. No form of violence shocks him to the core as it once might have; it still affects him of course, but he has learnt to hide the disgust and horror. He’s tough but fair, and he certainly does his best to help those in need when and where he can.

The film is split into a series of incidents involving Kilvinski and several other officers. We follow three young rookies. They are all very keen men, and they are all determined to bring law, order and justice to the streets that they will patrol. They are Roy (Stacy Keach),Sergio (Erik Estrada)and Gus (Scott Wilson). These men are each paired with a senior officer who will partner and support them while they get settled in. Gus is partnered with Whitey (Clifton James), Sergio with Galloway (Ed Lauter) and Roy with Kilvinski.

There is a documentary look to the film which helps to make it come across as being very realistic. We are made to feel as though we are out there patrolling the streets with these officers, and feel like we are encountering and getting to know the villains and victims along with the police officers.

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Kilvinski comforts Dorothy. Screenshot by me.

This film is both shocking and violent. It is also extremely bleak. It shows us that these officers can face death at any time from anybody.

We also see that this job emotionally destroys the men and women who do it, they seldom remain the same as they were when they joined the force. It’s not just the dead officers whose photos hang on the station wall who pay the price, every single person on the force pays some kind of price for their service.

The film also shows us that for some on the force the job is literally all they have. If they retire, or if they have to leave for other reasons, it can be near on impossible for them to have a meaningful life away from the force.

The film also shows the effect that a police officers career can have on their family. The families of these officers are victims too, they also end up paying a heavy price for supporting their loved one in their job. We see that the cops spend more time on the job and sadly their family then often begin to come in second place to the job. Jane Alexander is excellent as Fehler’s wife Dorothy. She has to watch the job create quite an impact on their personal life and she struggles to accept that change.

The entire cast give superb performances with special praise going to Scott. He was famous for being able to portray pent up rage, and for flipping into all out anger in many of his films. Here he gets to unleash the famous Scott screen rage on several occasions.

A scene that will stay with me forever is when one of the rookies is chasing a robbery suspect in the dark, somebody runs at him and he shoots them, when he gets closer he sees it’s the father of the robbery victim. This man had come out into the alley to look for the suspect too. When the officer sees what he has done he breaks down, and he looks so haunted, it’s a powerful moment for sure. This scene also serves to remind us that the Police can slip up and do wrong themselves, whether by mistake or done deliberately. 

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The men show their appreciation to Kilvinski. Screenshot by me.

My favourite scenes are the following. Kilvinski comforting Dorothy at the hospital. The officer briefing his men at the start of the film ( I love the banter between the guys in this). The shoot out in the bank car park. Kilvinski and Roy getting a group of prostitutes off the street(this is a very funny sequence and I think it’s nice that there is a lighthearted moment in an otherwise serious and bleak flick). Kilvinski and Sergio speaking to a despicable landlord, and Kilvinski then giving this a guy a piece of his mind. Kilvinski explaining his laws.

If you didn’t respect the police before seeing this, then I would seriously hope that seeing this would change your mind. These men and women risk their lives for us, the job takes a huge toll on them and on their personal life, and they often get very little reward for their sacrifice and hard times. 

This flick tells it like it is, and it sure isn’t pretty. The story is gripping and the characters believable. It is the performances that draw me back to this one again and again. The actors playing the rookies all do a superb job of showing their personalities change as they get their eyes opened to the realities of the job. Scott steals all the scenes he is in, and his character really becomes the heart of the film.

This is one of my favourite films about police officers. I also think it is one of the best films of the 70’s, and it deserves to be more well known today. See this if you enjoyed Dirty Harry and Law and Order (TV series).

Any other fans of this one? Please leave your thoughts on this film below.

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